the farmer's wife

Jane Hamilton on the Farmer's Wife

"It's certain there is no fine thing since Adam's fall but needs much laboring."--W.B. Yeats

"You ask me what it's all about
I say I don't know
Should you stay and work it out
Give it up! Let it go!"--Kate McGarrigle

When Juanita Buschkoetter drives off to Kansas City for two days, half way through "The Farmer's Wife," to her sister's bridal shower--leaving a stack of casseroles and household instructions as if she were going to the Continent for a month--I hoped Frontline would follow her. Away, away! Anything to get out of Lawrence, Nebraska, anything to have a little time away from the husband, the father-in-law, and that muddy desolate farm. More than that, I wished she'd strike out on her own, go back to a four year college, take a few women's studies classes, ceramics, world religion. Or, why not a schmaltzy true love happy ending just for the farmer's wife: Juanita Buschkoetter meets a rich bachelor, a man who will pay for her teeth to be fixed, give her a ticket to vet school, take her to an art museum, read novels out loud to her at night, talk to her about something other than the weather, the crops and the family financial situation.

What, the viewer may well ask, are the limits of marriage?  How far is a partner required to follow her own mate into the mire of stunted family bonds and a profession that requires nearly superhuman strength? Perhaps that scenario is somewhere in the future for Juanita, but for the time being she seems destined to be part of that formidable old triangle: Farmer, farm and wife. In the course of the program she attempts to transform that configuration, to become as central to the farm as the farm is central to her husband. "The Farmer's Wife" means to prove that some things are worth doing through thick and thin, that what we as a culture no longer value--faithfulness, devotion, the dogged pursuit of a goal--can, in the long run, pay off and have lasting worth.

These sentiments have an antique ring to them and harken back to the era before we began throwing our lives into finding ourselves, before such behavior was sanctioned. How painful the struggle is in "The Farmer's Wife" as the Buschkoetters make their way along the straight and narrow. And how mesmerizing it is to find oneself in a stranger's house, and at their supper table. Does devotion to an ideal and to hard work have to be so ripe with repressed anger and so unmerciful? For the first four hours Juanita and Darrel talk about nothing else but their farm, their financial situation and their troubled marriage. They don't seem to have friends or outside interests, nor do they ever question the strictures of the Catholic faith, their faith that apparently allows them to transcend the hardships of their circumscribed life.

How many Darrel Buschkoetters are there, I wonder, in the Heartland, men who live to farm and have no life beyond the grueling and persistent reality of debt, planting, harvesting and chores? What would it take for a nation to produce farmers who have imagination, spirit, dedication and sensitivity, intelligence and humor? Perhaps Frontline can devote a program or two the innovative and lively farmers in America who are caring for the land with sustainable farming techniques, making a living, and who are also striving for that elusive otherness we call "quality of life." These people too are heroic and they should be celebrated.

At the end of the fourth hour we see Juanita and Darrel watching television together: news from the outside! It is a stunning moment, the two of them looking past Lawrence to a larger world. Again I wished that Juanita could get herself out of town, into that varied world that flashes before her on the screen. This, of course, is an illusory wish. What would Juanita have become if she'd take a different path; without the farm would she have found a self as focused, as committed, as durable? She might very well be in a house in the suburbs, filled with gadgets and country crafts, quite like the ones she cleaned, knocking around trying to figure out what to do with herself, going to exercise class, hoping to find meaning in an office job.

Still, through the first four hours it seems a terrible fate, to be stuck with Darrel, casting her pearls, it seems, before swine. Since the founding of our country, farmers and especially the great plains farmers, have earned the reputation for being hard working and stoic, the quietly heroic men who made our nation what it is. But Darrel takes long suffering to new heights. His father has gypped him, the weather never cooperates and he is ruining his health and his spirit pushing metal at a factory in town. Like a Homeric epithet, his complaints, always the same, come again and again as he passes through the kitchen, the barn, or drives his car to town. Does his invective against fate tumble on after the cameras are shut off, does it intensify, or does he pipe down? No doubt he and Juanita have other personas the crew are not privy to. Both of them, understandably, never seem to lose their self-consciousness in front of the camera. So we don't see what we can only assume are their bitter quarrels, their venomous moments. And much of the drama is glossed over: we learn in a flash that Juanita leaves Darrel for a week, (What exactly brings her back?) and that Darrel goes to counseling. But on camera, good midwesterners, they most often behave themselves, always have a quick kiss for each other at supper time.

It would be fascinating to know what compelled the Buschkoetters to be the subjects of the documentary. Maybe they thought they'd raise the nation's consciousness about farming, prompting Congress to pass legislation that is favorable to the small farmer. We can only hope that the intrusion was worth it to them, that they will not regret having exposed their marriage, their daughters, and their in-laws to the public eye. It may well be true that most of us want our story told, in whatever way it can be done, at any expense, and I suppose the larger the audience the better. The Buschkoetter story has an epic feel about it, circumstances playing as much a role, or perhaps a bigger role, than character. From crisis to crisis both Darrel and Juanita, even as they hold back, reveal a great deal about themselves and their family, and it would be surprising if the show didn't damage relations that already seemed strained. How will Grandpa feel about being portrayed as a miserable, stingy cuss? (Frontline would have done well to provide subtitles for him--he's unintelligible beyond the goddamns that punctuate his sentences.) And what about Juanita's mother and sister, who in their own way, kept saying, "Nyah, nyah, it won't come up." These Nebraskans do not strike me as being big hearted, forgiving people, people who won't mind being wrong in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers.

And the community in Lawrence, all those parishioners, might be a little embarrassed to see the Buschkoetters--yikes--in bed, discussing the weather, the crops and their financial situation. In the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum reality the observer forces a particle to take a certain path, simply by the act of measuring. As in quantum mechanics, one of the big questions in "The Farmer's Wife" is the effect observation plays in determining the outcome of the story. What would have happened if the Frontline crew hadn't been in that tight little Nebraska farm house to observe the life that often seemed, despite the politeness, on the brink of busting apart? Would Juanita have stayed? Should she have stayed?

It is often true that a person faced with great constraints is able to forge a powerful self and find a place in the world. On the farm Juanita finds her strength and her niche and there is a kind of beauty in that discovery. But how much stronger she would have been if she'd come to the farm with wider experience. It is unfortunate that she doesn't have much of an idea that she is living in the '90s, in a country where many women consider an education a right, where many women believe there are limits to duty. She has to invent the wheel, has to beat down the path to her own mind and spirit.

What, the viewer may well ask, are the limits of marriage? How far is a partner required to follow her own mate into the mire of stunted family bonds and a profession that requires nearly superhuman strength? The world love once meant simply an act of kindness, which perhaps when all is said and done is the best we can hope for in any of our relations. In marriage, ideally, there is a decent interval when each person trains the other to accord to his or her standards of civility, when habits are honed to mesh, and the urge to freedom is granted and curbed and granted and curbed. There is so little give in Darrel Buschkoetter, and so much fear. The strength of this Frontline program is the keenness of ambivalence it evokes in the viewer. (And that is quite a feat, to make someone feel keenly ambivalent.) Juanita is at once a heroine for staying faithful to Darrel, and a fool for sticking with a guy who rarely remembers to say thank you when she brings him lunch out in the field during harvest time. How sad, that she ended up with someone who is terrified of the world, a world that in fact is filled with interesting and generous people. And yet how lucky Juanita is, to have found a passion, to have found a use for her many talents.

Darrel is clearly a born and bred farmer--it's a vocation that's in his blood, and yet it's astonishing that he never talks about his love of the earth, his awe of the growing season, and he only once, near the end, talks about the importance of being a steward for the land. Granted, midwestern guys don't tend to gush about whatever awe they do have, but what he chooses to say is disconcerting. His pleasure in farming, he says several times, comes from his feeling of power, power in raising his crops and his livestock, and presumably power while driving his stupendous combine and tractor. What a cruel blow it is to him then, to have the weather conspire against him, to have his articulate and capable wife take charge of the finances and hold their life together.

While the Buschkoetters might have wanted to take part in this program to convince the public that tax dollars should support small farmers until they are secure, I'm not sure that Darrel, for all of his devotion to the farm, is the sort of farmer to sell the idea of government aid. His self-pity and his sense of entitlement--that everyone should forgive his debt while he's in trouble--makes him a difficult character to warm to. But he suffers and grows, goes to counseling, becomes kinder and gentler. Collectively we seem to have forgotten that marriage and child-rearing require stoicism and sacrifice, and the Buschkoetters seem to know that better than any couple that has come to the screen.

In the end they triumph over adversity, the farm looks pretty in springtime, Darrel is a whole lot nicer, does the dishes and minds the girls. He seems to be proud of his wife and her accomplishments. All they want is to work the farm, to be free of financial strain, to be good parents, to have reliable cars. That is the pity, that what should be so simple is out of reach for them, year after year. The government, and small communities who are losing their farmland, certainly should make every effort to help young farmers carry on family farms. This is an expensive proposition that is vital to our health and well being, to our towns and villages, to our culture, and to our businesses.

It is impressive that the Buschkoetters struggled through their overwhelming difficulties and have remained a family, that their love for each other and the land, has developed. Part of me, the Puritan half, likes to believe that they both could have managed to come to the same end if Frontline hadn't been around. The other part, that '90s woman, product of the Boomer generation, doubts that they could have come through intact. Without a follow up, Juanita, only 30 at the end of the program, has a lifetime ahead of her to be the heroine, and all without cameras, without the eye of that fabled outside world pressuring her to patiently hold on, to abide.


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